The Ugly History of Environmental Fears and Population Controls

It’s time to focus less on people’s reproductive habits and more on overconsumption

An illustration with children, graphs and empty boxes
The Walrus/iStock

The other day, I saw the following announcement on a billboard in Vancouver: “The most loving gift you can give your first child is not to have another.” Had the message been solely in text, I might have been tempted to agree. My wife and I chose to stop at one, though that was more about our own carrying capacity than about the planet’s. Still, there are quite a few people on earth, quite possibly too many. Alas, the billboard’s message wasn’t limited to text. It included a very large photo of a cute little baby who happened to be Black.

The advertisement was part of a campaign by a United States–based nonprofit called One Planet, One Child, whose mission is to “alert and educate that overpopulation is a root cause of resource depletion, species extinction, poverty, and climate change.” After the very predictable uproar that greeted its Black-baby-reducing billboard, the group immediately took it down and issued one of those nonapologies that have become a staple in our culture. You know, the kind that regrets the misunderstanding without demonstrating any remorse.

One Planet, One Child insisted that this particular misunderstanding arose as a result of how sensitive to racial issues they really are. “We endeavored to be as inclusive as possible in this ad campaign,” the group said, “so we were running six variations of this ad, depicting children or families of different nationality or skin colour. We want to include everyone in the conversation.” Their only mistake, they said, was “that we didn’t anticipate the possibility someone might see only the one ad, or that someone might share just that ad on social media.”

Given that the billboard with the Black baby wasn’t put up anywhere near any of the others, the real question is how they failed to anticipate that the public would see what we were being shown. Which was, to be clear, the suggestion that some people have a greater right to exist than others.

The ordeal did at least serve to illustrate why most environmentalists steer clear of the subject of overpopulation. We might discuss it in general terms, but we’re loath to offer specific prescriptions. It’s not that overpopulation isn’t a planetary concern. It’s that, the moment you say humans need to make fewer babies, you run into the question of who exactly should be making fewer babies and who should be telling them to do so. And, because suggestion alone tends not to have much influence over people’s baby-making habits, your arguments are bound to wander into coercion territory, which is never a good look. By now, your rhetoric is merging with a long immoral history of forced sterilization programs and racial discrimination whose slippery slopes invariably funnel straight down to conclusions that all bear a troubling resemblance to the final solution.

Ever since Thomas Malthus published his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” in 1798, the elite’s fears of the unwashed masses and nonwhite people overrunning polite society have been dressed up as concern for the environment. When Malthus wrote, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for men,” he was less concerned about the British countryside’s carrying capacity than he was about the fact that farm workers were reproducing faster than aristocrats. Rather than allow poor people to start piling up, Malthus—who found the idea of contraception and sterilization repugnant—advocated a different means of keeping their numbers down:

In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases, and those benevolent but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.

It was a short leap from Malthusian principles to social Darwinism and eugenics. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859 with a subtitle we tend to forget: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Charles Darwin himself didn’t spend much time producing or consuming racist literature—his interest was in nonhuman species—but he remained a product of his culture. His 1871 tract, The Descent of Man, did include the casual prediction that, “at some point, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”

Whereas Darwin was content to let nature run its course, his wealthy cousin Francis Galton argued that well-heeled white people should do their best to hasten the process along. It was Galton, a fellow scientist much inspired by Darwin, who coined the term eugenics, from the Greek eugenes, meaning roughly “of good stock.” “We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock,” Galton wrote, describing his vision of selective breeding that would “give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.” At least Galton was less murderous than Malthus. Rather than inflict plague on the lower classes and withhold medical care, he encouraged “suitable” people to have more children and outbreed their “unsuitable” counterparts. But, as time went on and the “overgrowth of population” continued unabated, he began calling for the mass sterilization of those he considered the worst of the unsuitables.

That set the tone for the next half century as the movement Galton founded spread throughout the white world. Eugenics crossed the ocean to find a fertile garden in North America’s upper classes. Its most influential proponent was arguably Theodore Roosevelt, who used the power of the presidency to promote sterilizing criminals and the “feeble-minded” and publicly mused that the US would be committing “race suicide” if eugenics weren’t taken up more aggressively. Back in England, Winston Churchill was soon admiring the fact that “60,000 imbeciles, epileptics and feeble-minded” were sterilized against their will in the US between the two world wars. In the end, it took the Nazis to give eugenics a bad name. In their pursuit of Lebensraum for the “master race,” the original eco-fascists sterilized half a million people before deciding it wasn’t just the unborn who should be denied life but their living seed carriers too.

The Holocaust put an end to that kind of talk but not to the sentiment. The sterilization of minority groups and marginalized people remained an international practice long after the war ended. In Canada, Indigenous women continued to be sterilized against their will, and sometimes without their knowledge, through the 1970s, a decade in which some 1,200 Indigenous women suffered the procedure. It was worst in the North: in Inuit communities (in what is now Nunavut), up to a quarter of adult women were sterilized in government hospitals. That ended after the practice sparked a national outcry and subsequent government inquiry, but Indigenous women have continued to be surreptitiously and haphazardly brutalized in this way across Canada ever since. In 2019, over 100 Indigenous women from six provinces and the Northwest Territories joined a class action lawsuit alleging that they had been sterilized without informed consent between 1985 and 2018.

For all their heartless zeal, it must be said that the eugenicists failed miserably. The twentieth century saw humanity’s growth chart go vertical. We just exploded across the planet. The human population grew from 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 6 billion by 2000, an order of magnitude more growth than the previous century had seen, with the growth rate peaking in the early 1960s.

In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich’s environmental blockbuster The Population Bomb was published, opening with the statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich essentially reprised Malthus’s argument without being quite so overtly classist. He feared that the human population was on a collision course with the planet’s carrying capacity. The Population Bomb was a plea to save ecosystems as much as people—it was commissioned by the Sierra Club—and Ehrlich did have the good grace to say that the US should lead the way in reducing its own population, both because Americans had the highest environmental footprint and also because doing so would give Americans the moral authority to play a global leadership role on this issue. It was in his vision of global leadership that things got sketchy. Ehrlich advocated a sort of international triage whereby wealthy nations, such as the US, would provide food aid only to countries with a solid plan for reducing their populations to the point of self-sufficiency; countries that didn’t have any such plan would be left to their own devices so that famine could control the population. Better they starve now, Ehrlich argued, while the population was still relatively low, than later, when the population had doubled and the inevitable collapse in food supply would afflict twice as many people.

One of the countries Ehrlich thought beyond redemption was India. His visit to that country featured prominently in The Population Bomb. He described the horror of driving through Delhi: “People thrusting their hands through the taxi, begging. People defecating . . . people, people, people.” Ehrlich thought he was describing the effects of overpopulation, but Delhi was no more densely populated than New York City. What he was looking at was poverty. “I don’t see how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980,” he wrote.

That didn’t stop India from doing so and then some. Even as Ehrlich was writing, the Green Revolution—also known as the third agricultural revolution—was underway. It doubled crop yields through a combination of new synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, high-yield varietals of cereal crops, and intensive irrigation. Fifty years after Ehrlich’s prediction of mass starvation, it still hasn’t come to pass.

Still, it has to be said that Ehrlich’s concerns were not imaginary. The industrialization of Indian agriculture that fuelled a near quadrupling of the population, from 360 million in 1947 to 1.4 billion today, has had its own unintended consequences. Among the worst is that the country’s vast monsoon-charged aquifers have been sucked dry. Those modified crops whose incredible yields Ehrlich failed to foresee are also incredibly thirsty; a quarter of all the world’s groundwater extraction now occurs in India, and lethal water shortages have placed farmers in many parts of India in a state of perpetual crisis (exacerbated, to be sure, by the predatory grip of companies like Monsanto on their seed supply). The monsoon does replenish India’s aquifers each year, but it’s clear that more water is being drawn out of the system than the rains can return. And those rains are increasingly unpredictable as climate change wreaks havoc on a weather pattern that formed the basis of India’s great civilization.

As Ehrlich and many others have argued, the population explosion of any species inevitably impacts the landscapes in which it occurs. China isn’t down to its last fifty tigers because of European driving habits. In light of its own environmental deterioration and spurred by an ingrained cultural memory of the devastating famine that Mao presided over, China was one of the countries that took the message of The Population Bomb to heart, implementing a two-child policy in 1969 that was tightened, ten years later, to one child per family. That program succeeded in stopping China’s population growth. It also triggered an explosion of sex-selective abortions, leading to an estimated 30 million more marriageable men than women by 2020. And it further entrenched a political philosophy of coercion that includes the forced sterilization of China’s Uyghur Muslims as part of an ongoing campaign of cultural genocide.

One thing China’s population control didn’t do is save the environment. As of 2019, China led the world in carbon emissions, emitting twice as much as the runner-up (the US) and four times as much as India despite having almost the exact same population. The deciding factor in China’s rising emissions wasn’t population but industrialization.

The problem isn’t how many people live in a given place; it’s how they live. Even with the Chinese population’s meteoric improvement in living standards, their overall environmental footprint (accounting for consumption of all resources, not just fossil fuel) remains tiny compared to North Americans’. According to the Global Footprint Network, we use up the equivalent of 8 hectares per year per person. In China, it’s 3.7 hectares; in India, the figure is 1.2; for most African nations, it’s well under 1.

The question arises: Don’t we middle-class citizens of the industrialized world want everyone on earth to enjoy our living standards? Isn’t that the very definition of equality, the goal to which all our best instincts reach, implied in every campaign to eradicate poverty? But that would be disastrous for the planet. The planet’s forests, oceans, freshwater sources, and atmosphere would all be torn asunder if 4 billion more people started living the way we do. Actually, those things are already being torn asunder. Not because of the world’s poor but because of us.

It all gets messy fast. I’m not sure what the answers are. All I know is which way the numbers and my moral compass point: our insatiable Western appetites for consumption are more urgent problems than overpopulation. If you live in an industrialized country and environmental impact is truly your concern, it’s your own lifestyle you should be thinking about, not the reproductive habits of foreigners.

Of course, the marketing team at One Planet, One Child would say that was precisely the point they were trying to make—their billboard was in Vancouver, after all, not downtown Delhi. It was our reproductive habits they wanted us to think about, not anyone else’s.

But North Americans have already absorbed that message. As in just about every country in the developed world, our birth rate has dropped below the level a population requires to maintain itself. Immigration is the only reason our population isn’t shrinking. Declining birth rates are in fact a global trend: almost everywhere on earth, people are having few children. For the first time in human history, our species’ rate of population growth is slowing down. And we’re doing so of our own volition. No plagues, famines, wars, or mass-sterilization programs required. No billboards either.

This is a wonderful story, one of the best stories the environmental movement can and should be telling, because it’s based on a magical ingredient that merges human and ecological well-being: the empowerment of women. It turns out that, when girls are educated alongside boys and women are not blocked from full participation in society, plus given access to contraceptives, they tend to have fewer children. They also start families later in life. It’s a golden, global rule.

This is win-win fairy-tale material. As a result of women’s empowerment, the world’s population is settling down. Tell everyone you know: donating to a women’s health NGO is an environmental act.

To be clear, the global population of humans is still rising in absolute terms and will for some decades to come. But our reproductive rate peaked a long time ago—in 1961, at 2.1 percent, to be precise. At that point, our numbers were doubling every thirty-three years. Cut Ehrlich a little slack for being worried. Today, our growth rate is just barely over 1 percent, which would see us doubling in seventy years if we kept on at this rate, but we won’t. Our growth rate has been slowing for sixty years and will keep doing so until the global population plateaus and finally starts to contract. Demographers the world over agree on that trajectory and disagree only on the details.

What will our peak population be? And when will we reach it? Many institutions, including the United Nations Development Programme, have estimated that we’ll peak at around 10 billion by 2100. But models are updated every year, and they keep revising their peak estimates downward. In 2020, The Lancet published a major study that didn’t get the press it deserved because, well, 2020. The authors predicted that the global population would peak in the year 2064 at 9.73 billion and then start declining. Most countries on earth (151 of them, according to this study) will peak well before then, by 2050. That remains an educated guess, but it bears repeating that the common factor linking this study to every other one like it is women’s education and access to contraception.

My great-grandparents, probably like yours, all had between five and ten children. Many of those kids died before reaching adulthood or soon after. That’s how it was for pretty much all of human history—the reason it took Homo sapiens 50,000 years or so to make their first billion is that, until the twentieth century, child mortality and disease and war and famine killed off almost as many of us as we could replace.

Each of the generations that followed my great-grandparents had half as many children as the one before. Now I’m the father of a single child who happens to be a girl. I’m not trying to tell anyone else how many kids they should or shouldn’t have; whatever you decide, it won’t affect the curve 8 billion of us are all on. All I’m saying is that I’m glad my daughter will be the one who decides her own fate. If the fate of the world rests on women everywhere being able to do the same, that’s a vision of population control I can get behind.

Excerpted in part from The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis by Arno Kopecky © Arno Kopecky. Published by ECW Press Ltd.

Arno Kopecky
Arno Kopecky was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award in nonfiction for The Oil Man and the Sea. His latest book, The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis, is out now.

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